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Apache Web software on verge of major revision

The Web server software, a stalwart in the open-source software movement, is about to get a major overhaul--in the making since 1997.

Web server software Apache, a stalwart in the open-source software movement, is about to get a major overhaul--in the making since 1997.

A fifth and final "alpha" test version of Apache 2.0 was released Friday by the nonprofit Apache Software Foundation. The final version should be out by the end of the year, said Ryan Bloom, one of the lead programmers on the team.

"There's a big feeling that it's time to stop talking and get it out the door," Bloom said. "Most would like to see it out by the end of the year."

The new version is a major overhaul of the software, which resides on servers and sends Web pages to people browsing the Internet. The current version is at home on Linux and Unix machines but underwent some contortions to adapt to Windows machines. The new version, though, is much more portable and will work on Windows as well as BeOS, OS/2 and eventually Mac OS as well, Bloom said.

Other major improvements include higher performance and more flexibility for handling jobs such as supporting Web browsing from wireless gadgets.

"I think it'll be worth the wait," said Brian Behlendorf, one of the original Apache project founders and now chief technology officer of Collab.Net.

Apache competes chiefly with Microsoft's Internet Information Server and the Sun-Netscape Alliance's iPlanet software.

According to the Netcraft survey, Apache is the most popular Web server software, used on 63 percent of Web servers, more than three times Microsoft's 20 percent share and nine times iPlanet's 7 percent. However, the Netcraft study doesn't reflect the type of use--for example, low-end duties such as delivery of a Web site of family photos vs. high-end duties such as running a large e-commerce site.

While Apache has a lead in terms of raw percentages, the Web is still growing in size and complexity, and Apache can't afford to stand still, its leaders acknowledge.

"If we don't get it out soon enough, people will look for alternatives," said Dirk-Willem van Gulik, another member of the core Apache developer team.

Apache is parallel to the Linux operating system in several ways and often is found running on Linux computers.

Like Linux, Apache is an open-source project, meaning anyone can modify and redistribute the software. Also like Linux, Apache has been a rallying cry for the open-source movement, as programmers try to undermine the control of software written by giants such as Microsoft while producing what they view as elegant software in the process.

Apache also resembles Linux in that it has begun spawning companies that support and enhance the core software. Among those companies are Covalent Technologies and C2Net.

Finally, just as Red Hat and other companies have avidly hired key Linux programmers, Covalent employs van Gulik and Bloom, as well as another core programmer, Randy Terbush, who this week ceded his chief executive post to John Jack. C2Net, meanwhile, employs a key programmer of its own, Mark Cox.

There are several major changes to the new version of Apache.

One is the incorporation of "multithreading," which improves Apache performance, Bloom and van Gulik said. Currently, when a browser submits a request to view a Web page, the Apache server generates a new job called a "process" to handle the task. The same job also can be accomplished with a similar technology called a "thread."

Threads are much easier for a computer to create, requiring less memory and other resources. That means they can be spawned faster than processes, Bloom said. A further advantage is that threads often can let software take better advantage of systems with multiple processors.

However, threads have a major drawback in that they are grouped together, so if one thread fails, it will take down all its comrades. Processes, by comparison, are better insulated from one another.

Another major change to the software is the ability to plug in different core engines, Bloom said. Apache currently is used to deliver Web pages, a service governed by a set of rules called Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). The new architecture allows the easy use of new modules that can handle other technologies, notably the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP).

WAP is expected to grow in usage as more people access the Internet through handheld computers, cell phones and other mobile devices.

"If 2.0 gets to market quickly enough, a WAP module has the potential to take over," van Gulik said. Most WAP software consists of proprietary versions created by companies such as Vignette and SilverStream Software.

Another new feature in Apache 2.0 will allow Apache to be tied in with fancier modules that can deliver customized Web pages, Bloom said. "Static" Web pages are unchanging and can be delivered more quickly than "dynamic" pages created on the fly--when a server generates a response to someone searching a Web site for a particular word, for example.

Several technologies are used to create customized Web pages, including the Perl language, Microsoft's Active Server Pages, the PHP hypertext preprocessor and other methods. The newer version will make it easier to use several of these technologies at the same time, van Gulik and Bloom said.